Opinion

Is the 100% renewable commitment a green unicorn?

Is the 100% renewable commitment a green unicorn?

3M is the latest company to announce a commitment to using 100% renewable energy. It joins a long line of businesses, from major corporations like Ikea to small mom-and-pop shops to buy energy that comes from low carbon sources. Is this a true commitment to run a building on green energy, or just a case of smoke and mirrors?

Like so many of these announcements, the plan doesn’t involve 3M building an on-site power plant. Instead, it will buy energy from wind farms a few hundred miles away, and continue to run its corporate HQ from the local grid. Naturally this has caused raised eyebrows in some quarters. Far from being run 100% on green electricity, the company will source its power from a grid fuelled in part by dirty fossil fuels.

Understanding the greener power grid

This is an inherent challenge in understanding how green energy works. Unless there is a cable that’s run directly from wind farm to office there is no guarantee the energy powering the lights came from a specific source. Electricity passing through a strip light could as easily have come from a coal-fired station pumping poison into the atmosphere as a gently turning wind turbine. 

It’s this undeniable fact that naysayers use when they pour scorn on renewable commitments. They want to see the direct connection and accuse executives of using linguistic gymnastics to make claims they cannot support.

To some extent they’re correct. The way power is generated and distributed is sometimes confusing and prone to oversimplification. Stating “we will run our HQ on renewable energy” is far simpler than the more accurate “we will pay to generate the same amount of energy we use from renewable sources, even if we don’t use that specific unit of electricity in our office computers.”

To illustrate this, imagine a local community needs 100 units of energy. This comes from a coal-fired power station, which pumps 100 units for everyone to use into the local grid. A business decides to use renewable energy from a wind farm, so they buy 1 unit of power and the wind farm pumps their 1 unit into the grid. The coal power station only gets paid for 99, which encourages them to reduce their output. As more businesses and individuals buy from the wind farm, so the share from the power station goes down. Sometimes this collective effort is known as “greening the grid”.

Finding a local green energy solution

Being able to show a positive impact within their community has led companies to invest in local generation. Small wind turbines are more frequently seen rising above the skyline while roofs and flat surfaces are often covered in solar panels. In the UK it’s been estimated a third of larger businesses are generating some of their energy, while one business in the US has created an infrastructure that’s allowed them to disconnect completely from their local grid. Even more impressive considering it’s a 1000 square metre site in an urban area.

There are some compromises involved in making commitments to 100% renewable energy. Unless a business can generate power and push it down a cable, it’s likely to continue to use energy from a grid shared with fossil fuelled power. But the money being paid to green providers is giving confidence to investors there is a market for renewable power, encouraging its growth and driving down the pollution traditional power stations create.

Surely that’s a commitment worth making.

Image credit: National Renewable Energy Lab (Creative Commons)

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Is the 100% renewable commitment a green unicorn?

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